Life Skills: Tools to upgrade your digital productivity

Editor’s Note: Just as you might be taking any number of J-term workshops that teach you things like winter survival skills, how to bake bread, or knitting, we hope that you’ll follow MiddBlog for a few lessons of our own this month. I’ve asked all the former lead editors of MiddBlog who have since graduated to join me in writing-up a series of life skills posts. Specifically, I wanted to know: “What are the practical things you didn’t learn while at Midd?” From how to dress yourself to post-dorm room decor to managing finances and keeping up with information overload — I know these former bloggers have lots of specific things that will come in handy if not now, then soon. While certainly not a lecture, I’d look at this series of posts as an online mini-course and discussion about post-grad life. For Seniors in particular, now is the time to wean yourself off the good life and I hope this series helps. Read, ask questions in the comments, and share with others. Thanks. – Ryan Kellett ‘09.5 (MiddBlog founder)

This post is by Brian Fung ’10. Okay, so he’s not a former MiddBlog editor, but he was the editor in chief of The Campus while at Middlebury. Brian now works at Chairman’s Innovation Lab at Atlantic Media Company in Washington D.C. after a year of grad school at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Life Skills: Tools to upgrade your digital productivity

by Brian Fung

via Flickr / mentalman1369

For many of us, J-Term is a time for relaxation — a chance to savor long dinners with friends or spend an afternoon on the slopes. But the lull is also a perfect time to reassess your digital habits before jumping into the spring semester or, if you’re a graduating Feb, launching your post-college career. Here are a few apps to give your workflow that instant boost.

Dropbox: File management

Middlebury offers you ample storage space on its network. But what happens when you graduate, take a trip to New York or leave the country? Carrying your files on a USB drive is risky, and tapping into the College network from a VPN can be slow and intimidating for some. Dropbox gets around those problems by giving you your own, personal server space that’s accessible from anywhere in the world and on any device — whether that’s your smartphone, your friend’s MacBook or your mom’s home PC. All users get 2GB of storage just for signing up, and you can buy extra if you need more. But it’s unlikely you’ll ever need to pay. If you successfully convince a friend to join, both of you receive a referral bonus. Joining Dropbox using this link, for example, grants us both an extra 250MB of free storage. Even better, students who register with a .edu email address get double the bonus. So jump on it while you’ve still got your student account with the college!

Evernote: Notetaking and digital brain

Evernote is the perfect all-in-one note-taking tool. As with Dropbox, all your notes are stored on the Web and are accessible wherever you have Internet access. You can type your notes directly into Evernote, clip snippets of websites you want to keep for later — I use it to save interesting recipes and PDFs of research papers — and even upload multimedia such as photos and audio. What’s more, Evernote automatically scans your uploaded images for text and makes everything searchable. So if I upload pictures of a paper napkin bearing notes for an awesome fantasy novel I’d like to write, I can run a search in Evernote later that’ll bring up the napkin in seconds. Evernote’s also got great support for sharing, tagging and geolocation data — making it a fantastic tool for planning vacations, keeping track of business cards, compiling a portfolio of your best work or building a family scrapbook.

1Password and LastPass: Online security

Let’s face it — humans stink at picking passwords. Memorable passwords are often the least secure, and because we can only remember so much, we tend to use variants of the same password everywhere. Your best bet is to take the opposite approach: pick inscrutable passwords that are both impossible to remember and difficult for other machines to crack. That poses an obvious problem: how do you log into a site using a password you don’t yourself know? And how do you keep track of your passwords when they’re all 20-character jumbles of letters, numbers and symbols? That’s where password managers like 1Password comes in. 1Password helps you generate strong, random alphanumeric passwords and stores them behind a firewall defended by a single master password. At first blush, you might think this is akin to putting all your eggs in one basket, which might be dangerous. But in fact, it’s actually far less secure to protect your accounts on Amazon, Netflix, Google and Apple with guessable variants of “password123.” That’s four weak points of entry where a break-in at one virtually guarantees security breaches at all the others. Compare that to four strong points of entry that are not only isolated from each other but are also defended by an extra password that’s fairly strong and complex since it’s the only one you need remember. So whether you’re buying spring textbooks or a flight home after Feb graduation, think about upping your password game.

Boomerang: Scheduled emails

Have you ever wanted to jump ahead in time so that you could remind yourself to send an important email? Boomerang doesn’t do time travel, but it eliminates the need to set a reminder. Emails you send with Boomerang — which, by the way, integrates seamlessly into Gmail — can be scheduled for later delivery. Emails that you receive can also be set to reappear at the top of your inbox at a later time. I tend to use my inbox like a to-do list, so it’s helpful to have an action item resurface a week or two later when the deadline is coming up. Unfortunately, you can’t tell Boomerang to send emails that are dated from the past, so you’re still on the hook if you forget your mother’s birthday.

via Flickr / eston

Google Voice: Telephone

You might already know Google Voice gives you a separate phone number that links your existing phones together. You might even know that you can get voicemails transcribed and sent instantly to your email. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You can set Google Voice to have different phones ring depending on the time of day or who’s calling. You can customize the outgoing message different people hear when you don’t pick up. If you connect Google Voice to Google Talk, you can text and make free phone calls right from Gmail. You can record incoming calls by answering and then pressing “4” — with the other person’s permission, of course, and depending on the state laws in your area. And it all works the same way if you travel to a foreign country. That means you could go to grad school abroad, as I did, and make free calls back to the States without ever having to pay long distance fees. Ever.

Padmapper: Apartment hunting

So you’ve skiied, snowboarded or kayaked down the mountain in your cap and gown and you need to find an apartment in a brand-new city. You could start by slogging through hundreds of ads on Craigslist in search of a diamond in the rough. Or you could use Padmapper, which collates ads from Craigslist, Rent.com and Apartments.com and plots them on a handy, interactive Google map. Finding a place to live is dead simple. The app provides you with countless filters to eliminate the cruft you’re not interested in. Drill down with typical filters like the number of bedrooms, the price per bedroom and the number of bathrooms — but also by the freshness of the ad, sublets, pet restrictions, commute time and a ton of other details that might be relevant to your situation. Logging in with a username and password gives you the ability to bookmark places you like and to email landlords directly from within the app.

Mint.com: Finances

For someone who’s becoming financially independent, being able to track spending and income is an important first step. Mint helps you understand your financial health at a glance with an appealing website and a dozen ways to crunch your behavioral data. Connecting your bank and credit cards to Mint will show you how much you’ve got, what you’ve been spending on lately and how that picture has been changing over time. Set monthly budgets, categorize and tag your purchases or let Mint work automatically — it’s up to you. (Next week, I’ll explain how Mint fits into a robust approach to financial decisions.)

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7 thoughts on “Life Skills: Tools to upgrade your digital productivity

  1. Brian, you have set the bar high for the rest of us this month!

    I share your love of Google Voice. I recommend using the GV app on your smartphone. Not only does it show you are calling from your GV number (instead of your cell number, which I tend not to give out), but you get free text messaging as well.

    • That’s a great tip, Sarah (Franco). I should’ve mentioned that! Another benefit to the app is that you can listen to your voicemail with just a click or two instead of calling yourself and/or navigating through an automated message tree. Very convenient.

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